Soundtracking the Resistance - Alone Together | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Soundtracking the Resistance - Alone Together

Discussing Mental Health Awareness Month and 13 Reasons Why With JR JR's Joshua Epstein

May 05, 2017 Photography by Brantley Gutierrez JR JR
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Politicking is thrust aside this week as Mental Health Awareness Month kicks off. So no Trump and no Brexit, no outrage over the GOP’s healthcare “reform,” no Chuck Schumer 100 day playlist and no handwringing over the rise of the far-right or horrified satisfaction as the President stumbles through a series of odd comments that play up to the natural bias of supporters and foes alike.

Instead we turn to something an increasing number of people understand needs attention without always knowing what to do. Too many are left alone to deal with mental health issues, fearful of what might happen should they admit to needing help.

This is at least understood much more now, and when it comes to raising awareness, the new Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, adapting Jay Asher’s novel, is at the high profile and also controversial end of the spectrum. Dealing with the steps that led up to the suicide of a teenage girl, the show has been praised by some for starting an often ignored conversation, while also drawing heavy criticism for the way it portrayssome say glamorizesits subject matter.

Wherever the truth may lie on that one, it’s a show that comes with admirable intentions and a great soundtrack, including a new song from Detroit band JR JR. Understanding and managing depression is something Joshua Epstein, one half of JR JR along with Daniel Zott, understands well through personal experience, and it’s something the band’s song “Same Dark Places,” complete with a childhood monster created by Epstein, tackles.

Ahead of the start of Mental Health Awareness Month, Epstein spoke to us to discuss the song, his experiences dealing with depression, and the role music can play for those left feeling isolated and alone.

Stephen Mayne (Under the Radar): How did your song come to be included in 13 Reasons Why?

Joshua Epstein (JR JR): All I know is we get emails from time to time asking if we’re ok with our songs being used. I think that getting an email about the show was exciting for us because it related so much to the content of the song, but it was also a cool opportunity for us to feel like the work we had made could have a life in a little bit of a different realm outside our existing fan base.

It wasn’t written with the show in mind then?

Entirely coincidental. The subject matter kind of lined up.

Have you read the book or seen the show?

I have a friend who had been writing for a new Netflix show so I’d heard all about it but I hadn’t read the book.

The song itself doesn’t refer to a specific time or event in your life?

It’s a general song. I had an acute moment of needing to do it to help deal with what I was feeling, and more precisely deal with the chemicals in my brain. I thought there was stigma with taking any sort of medicine for mental issues, for your brain issuesuntil my therapist told me, “No it’s like someone who has diabetes. Would you judge them for taking insulin?” And the answer is of course not and she said it’s a similar kind of thing. So for me going through that and then putting in the work and taking some medicine has been a huge help. The song was written as I was going through all of it and figuring it out. It was cathartic to write.

I understand the picture in the video is something you drew years ago?

Yeah I was at my parents’ house cleaning out my old bedroom and I found this book of poetry I’d made as a kid and the poems were all accompanied by paintingswatercolors and I think there were some chalk drawings in there too. A lot of the poems are philosophical but kind of childish and there’s this one with the painting that’s been the cover for the single. There’s a poem on it in the lower right hand corner that says “Is death really so scary/why can’t we just learn to let it take us” and I read that as an adult who has spent a lot of time in therapy and I thought, “Wow I can’t believe no one saw this and thought that maybe they should talk to me.”

I was asking my parents about it, you know, “did you guys see this,” and their response was at that point in time it wasn’t something people talked about as openly. It’s always been this thing that probably as a parent you don’t want to feel like your kid is going through. It was strange to share this painting and to try to textualize it but also there was relief because this has just been a part of who I am and even in so much as it’s sometimes something I have to monitor it is kind of a strength. There is a certain level of sensitivity that is a gift.

The show and the music seem to be resonating. How important is it for you to be able to talk about these feelings publicly?

Right now we’re in a place where people are more open-minded whether they know it or not, and it’s such a good time, especially given the current geopolitical climate to start the conversation and de-stigmatize some of these subjects that we’re not talking about that are so harmful. I think mental health is one of those things with such a stigma. To be able to communicate directly to the youth is very important because art can be substituted for personal experience. It’s important to me to try and de-stigmatize that conversation, especially for young people; to make them talk about it openly with their friends and family and not be embarrassed to say they need help.

How difficult was it for you to discuss these concerns growing up? Did you find there were any outlets?

I grew up in a very liberal environment so in terms of having access to mental health professionals and even to people in my own family who could relate, it was easier for me than most. However it’s not all about society or your family or friends. There is something that’s so personal about it and you just feel the stigma of being sick or being weak or whatever it is. So for me personally it was hard to talk about even though everyone around me was supportive and I probably had more opportunity than most to feel comfortable.

Because it’s such a deeply personal thing, how do you reach that stage where it’s something you want to put out there in your music?

It’s actually a weird time. I’ve been going to therapy and been becoming more self-aware and learning how to qualify what everything is in my head and my body. And so much of it is chemical. As hard as you try to combat mental illness on your own, sometimes you need medicine, you need professional health and there’s nothing you can do. It’s so important for me to try and communicate to people that I’m not going to view this as a sign of weakness and no one should. It’s a chemical thing in the exact same way as having diabetes is a chemical thing, and it affects so many people. If you were sick with cancer you’d never feel ashamed asking someone for help. If you’re physically anxious or physically sad you feel ashamed and I don’t think we’re in a place culturally or as a society where that should be happening.

Is the professional support available for people who need it or is there still some way to go?

I can’t speak to that but I think it’s a lot like the general healthcare system in America. You have the most skilled and advanced practitioners and medical professionals in the country and I think it’s a shame so many people in our country go without proper healthcare because they’re unable to afford it or just because it’s so complicated. Filling out healthcare forms for me was difficult. Our system is so complicated it can be really tough to get help sometimes. Also there are certain responsibilities that we have as artists I think to try to present an avenue of change. We can present the problem and then we can say but it’s ok, here’s why and here’s where we can go. It’s almost a social responsibility to reach out to people wherever they are in the country.

To come back to this point of your social responsibility as an artist, how is this something you juggle? How do you decide what to write about?

I think it’s a really interesting time for artists and I think there have been some trends. I personally think music has almost become an accessory for people. There is still a way to make a living as a creative person, it’s just changed so much. The days of being a Tim Buckley where you’re an artist making work that’s less mainstream and has a less of a general appealwell everything has become so niche it’s harder to have the Tim Buckley career trajectory. So I think a lot of people are scared of losing their career and their opportunities and take less risks.

But I think what’s happened in the past year in our country is that this is the first time so many of my friends are really politically aware but also feeling completely powerless and living in a world that is governed by people who don’t care about the same things or want the same things. It’s kind of like everything else starts to feel so trivial. Instead it feels more like being a part of the world wondering what can I do. Well this is a thing I can do and hopefully it can help someone in the world and help start a conversation somewhere.

When you were growing up and dealing with these situations, did you find yourself turning to music and did it help?

Yeah, music and literature and these other mediums; I think these are time capsules you can find and it can feel so nice to read some old poem or listen to some old song and realize someone else thought the same thing you’ve thought. Sometimes these songs and these creative things can give a voice to a feeling you had that you weren’t quite able to develop. I think for me the arts were always a place to find a sympathetic ear or to find some sort of feeling of going through something with someone who’s been there. I had a big moment with Elliott Smith over the years. I felt like every time I put him on it made me feel better.

What do you want people coming across your music and this song in particular to take away from it?

I want anyone listening to take away whatever they need ideally, but I’m not afraid to let everyone know I have some chemical stuff happening in my brain that I deal with and I’m not embarrassed by it. Hopefully someone will be able to take some level of positivity into their own life. In the same way for me as a kid being able to listen to Elliott Smith and Nick Drake just made me feel like I have some sort of friend somewhere, some sort of support out there. If I could do that for someone it would be really cool.

But also just to start the conversation. Having this conversation feels really important to me because there is nothing wrong with anyone who has any sort of physical or mental disease. It’s something that’s so normal and you don’t have to be scared of talking about it or scared of admitting, and the more things that talk about that in culture contribute to the social norms shifting and people being more open about it. That’s the magic of art and music in general. Music is like a dark art in that you can communicate a feeling without having to have the person listening to it be aware of the soapbox. The impact art can have in society is still huge.

Song of the Week: JR JR - “Same Dark Places”

Inevitably we turn to JR JR’s song for our pick of the week. It also does exactly what he discusses above by serving a jangly upbeat slice of pop that offers a warm embrace and a reassuring message that you don’t have to be alone in the dark places, all without a soapbox in sight. The video is worth it too simply to get to see his childhood art coming to life in a kaleidoscope of bright watercolors.


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